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Chocolate: Food of the Gods

          Lovisa  Benbow

Date: 10/14/2006

 

Coming from the Latin named plant Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods,” chocolate is both an indulgence and an apparent necessity for life.  It is the number one food craved by woman and falls only second to pizza for men.  Americans consume more than twelve pounds of chocolate a year per person and spend close to $8.9 billion dollars to satisfy their craving (http://www.medscicommunications.com/just_for_fun.htm

).   In one study it was found that 50% of women preferred chocolate to sex! Another study found that those self-proclaimed “chocoholics” in fact live longer than their chocolate abstaining counterparts (http://www.chocolate.org). Besides the obvious gratification it brings to the senses, chocolate has also been discovered to have many major health benefits, seemingly making it the perfect food.

What’s in chocolate that makes it so great?

            Chocolate is rich and potent with anti-oxidants.  Anti-oxidants work by blocking the free radicals that inhibit and breakdown normal cellular reproduction (http://www.intemperantia.com/healthbenefits.htm).   These free radicals are associated with heart disease and cancer (http://www.medscicommunications.com/just_for_fun.htm

).  By helping rid the body of these free-radicals, anti-oxidants help promote healthy living and lengthen the life expectancy.  Flavonoids, and the subgroup Catechins, are the two main anti-oxidants found in chocolate.  These are found in substantially higher rates in dark chocolate than green and black teas (http://www.intemperantia.com/

healthbenefits.htm).  These anti-oxidants are found to increase the “good” levels of cholesterol, HDL, by almost 10% while also making the “bad” cholesterol, LDL,  less susceptible to oxidation.  Oxidation is the process that typically leads to creation of the artery-clogging plaques.  Studies have found that people can eat chocolate in place of the vitamins and other anti-oxidants they supplement their diet with and have the same end result (http://www.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/diet.fitness/02/02/chocolate.wmd). 

            Another bonus of chocolate is that it contains stearic acid.  Stearic acid is one of the fats found in chocolate.  When consumed, the fat helps to boost the levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.   In addition, scientists found that when people ate milk chocolate, their levels of LDL, the bad cholesterol, did not rise, as expected when an individual consumes a fat (http://www.cnn.com/2000/HEALTH/diet.fitness/02/02/chocolate.wmd). 

In addition to the anti-oxidants and stearic acid, chocolate has exceptional nutritional qualities.   It is a small volume, high energy food containing carbohydrates, fats, and vegetable proteins as well as large amounts of potassium and magnesium, some calcium and sodium, and vitamins A1, B1, B2, D, and E (http://www.medscicommunications.com/just_for_fun.htm). 

            In addition to the latter, chocolate contains trace, but effective, amounts of a number of other substances.  One such substance is theobromine, a central nervous system stimulant that facilitates muscular exertion as well as acting as a diuretic and appetite stimulus.  In addition, chocolate contains caffeine, which increases intellectual activity and watchfulness while helping to resist fatigue.  It also contains a chemical, phenylethylamine, which is similar to amphetamines, the chemical humans release when they fall in love.   Chocolate also contains and essential amino acid, tryptophan, that increases the production of serotonin.  Serotonin is a natural stress-reliever and anti-depressant.  Other substances that chocolate contain ared endorphins, which are the same natural opiates that the brain releases, that elevate ones mood and reduces pain.  Chocolate contains phenols as well.  Phenols are found in other foods like vegetables, tea, fruits, and red wine and help to protect the heart from coronary diseases.  Finally chocolate also contains Anandamine, a substance that imitates the effects of marijuana by acting on the same brain receptors, resulting in a mild high.  This mild high is prolonged by two ingredients also found in chocolate that inhibit the breakdown of Anandamine (http://www.medscicommunications.com/just_for_fun.htm).  With all the active substances found in chocolate, it gives some basis to the claims of chocolate addiction and the “healing powers” of chocolate for a broken heart or a bad mood.

Ask the experts:

Anti-Oxidants

            The substance with the most health benefits found in chocolate is the anti-oxidants.  A number of studies have been conducted testing the hypothesis that there is an inverse relationship between tea consumption and cardiovascular disease because of the flavanoids naturally occurring in tea.  Since it has been found that dark chocolate has up to four times the amount of flavanoids than tea, Kris-Etherton and colleagues ran an acute feeding study in order to measure the cardiovascular benefits of the addition of flavanoid-rich chocolate to a normal diet.  Researchers have found that chocolate can increase the anit-oxidant capacity and slow the oxidation of LDL, the bad cholesterol. It may also induce relaxation in endothelium functioning, which is the process opposite of the hardening of the arteries and blood vessels that often times leads to cardiovascular diseases.  It has also been found to increase the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines while simultaneously reducing the production of inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines work in conjunction with hormones and neurotransmitters in aiding with communication between cells.  In addition, chocolate has been reported to increase the synthesis of antithrombotic lipid prostacyclin while reducing the production of the proinflammatory cysteinyl leukotrienes.  Prostacycline is found to aid in the treatment of primary pulmonary hypertension.  Polyphenol oligamers found in chocolate have been found to protect against peroxynitrate-dependent oxidation and nitration reactions.  This aids in preventing the blood vessels from hardening.  Finally it was shown the consumption of chocolate can decrease the expressiong of the activated conformation of glycoproteins on epinephrine-activated platelets, again helping to prevent that potentially fatal hardening of the arteries (Kris-Etherton and Keen 2002).

            In another study by Rein and his colleagues, they found that chocolate inhibits platlet activation and function.  Their research focused on the polyphenols found in chocolate as well as other foods that have anti-oxidant affects.  These researchers found that chocolate had an aspirin like affect on hemostasis.  In addition, the consumption of chocolate suppressed epinephrine-stimulated platelet activation and platelet microparticle formation.  Platelets play a major role in coronary artery disease.  Prior research has found that a daily aspirin regiment and anti-oxidant supplements therapy helps to keep the platelet levels low.  Researchers found that after eating the chocolate, subjects had a similar reaction as to the one provided by the aforementioned aspirin therapy.  Thus having some chocolate daily can be used in place of the aspirin therapy with the same results (Rein, et. al 2000).

Blood Pressure

            In a research letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dirk Taubert discussed his findings of the relationship between chocolate consumption and those individuals with untreated isolated systolic hypertension, or mile high blood pressure.  He found a favorable affect in his subjects.  He concluded that since plant polyphenols are the main constituents of cocoa, the main ingredient in dark chocolate, that the addition of chocolate to a diet has significant effects in lowering blood pressure.  Since chocolate is largely easy to find, in small doses, it can be used to help lower blood pressure, though it is not a replacement for medicines or recommended as a sole therapy for high blood pressure (Taubert 2003)

Cholesterol

            Wan and colleagues looked at the effects of chocolate on LDL oxidative susceptibility and prostaglandin concentrations in humans.  Knowing that flavanoids have great anti-oxidant affects and knowing the large flavanoid concentration in chocolate, Wan and researchers set out to measure the affects of chocolate on LDL, the “bad” cholesterol that leads to cardiovascular diseases.  After conducting a carefully crafted study, Wan found that cocoa powder and dark chocolate favorably affect the risk for cardiovascular diseases.  The chocolate does this by reducing LDL oxidation susceptibility, increasing capacity for serum total antioxidant and HDL-cholesteral concentrations, and not adversely affecting prostaglandins.  Meaning, chocolate helps to reduce the bodies intake of bad cholesterol while helping with the intake of good cholesterol without the adverse affects one would expect from eating a fat-filled food (Wan, et. al 2001)

Psychological

            Rogers and Smit studied the claimed feel-good affects of chocolate and it’s psychoactive constituents.  The researchers basically found that though these mood-altering compounds are found in chocolate, they are not in any sort of concentration that would be required to actually cause a psychoactive affect or an addiction.  For example, there are relatively high amounts of the central nervous system stimulant theobromine, however, it is a relatively weak stimulant with weak subjective affects.  The case with the caffeine found in chocolate is the inverse.  There is not a high enough concentration of caffeine in chocolate to produce a significant source of dietary caffeine.  There are a number of other pharmacologically significant substances found in chocolate, like phenylethylaminem tyramin, serotonin, tryptophan, and magnesium, however these are found in a number of other foods with out the same affects reported from chocolate.  Rogers and Smit go on to say that there is no biological basis for the addiction and psychoactive features of chocolate.  Instead these addictions are caused by socialization and the forces of restraint and attribution (Rogers and Smit 1999).

 

Conclusion

            The biological affects of chocolate and it’s health benefits in preventing cardiovascular disease are abundant and clear.  The psychological affects, though with now biological basis, are still very real to many.  However, the research does not say go out and eat as much chocolate as can be found.  Instead, all research indicates that a small bit of dark chocolate daily is all that is needed.  Both milk chocolate and white chocolate do not have the same health benefits as they have the lowest concentration of cocoa, the active ingredient (http://my.webmd.com/content/article/73/81921.htm?lastselectedguid={5FE84E90-BC77-4056-A91C-9531713CA348}).

Also, most commercially produced chocolate contains high levels of fats and sugars which negate the potential beneficial affects (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/health/2001855258_choco11.html

).  When looking for a chocolate remedy to help in the fight against cardiovascular disease, one should look for a dark chocolate that is relatively pure with little or no additives. 

 

Psychology Department

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